Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Covering the coverage of the fox genome paper

Ah, the beloved Tame Fox Project! I worked in a lab that focused on these foxes for four years, during my PhD in Kukekova Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. We worked on analyzing the fox genome for publication throughout those four years, and now at last the fox genome paper is published. (You can see my name tucked neatly in the middle of the authors list.)

What does it mean to have the fox genome sequenced and published? There is a flurry of news reporting about it, and I have issues with a lot of that coverage. I'll be covering the coverage here, letting you know what is accurate and what is less so. I'll update this post as I cover more articles.

Feel free to comment with questions, or with news stories you think should be included here.

  • Fox ‘tameness gene’ identified in 60-year study (Independent): the title of this story is irresponsible, implying that there is one gene controlling tameness in these foxes and that that gene was discovered. The story itself does a decent job of untangling the facts: that a large number of genes affect tameness, and that the gene that was discovered influences whether the fox wants to continue to interact with humans during a specific behavioral test. However, I wonder how many people just read the headline and took away a very different message.
  • A Soviet-era experiment to tame foxes may help reveal genes behind social behavior (Washington Post, Animalia): Great title, intriguing and also accurate. However, the story itself over-emphasizes the morphological difference in the foxes, stating that the Tame Fox Project "spawned an ongoing area of research into how domestication, based purely on behavioral traits, can result in other changes — like curlier tails and changes to fur color." We still don't know if the morphological changes in the tame foxes (which are much less frequent than most journalists suggest) are related to their behavioral changes, or if they're just a result of founder effect. (The lab that produced the current study is betting on founder effect.) The rest of this article is good, with an excellent description of the study's design.
  • Sequenced fox genome hints at genetic basis of behavior (ScienceDaily): "today, with the first-ever publication of the fox genome, scientists will begin to understand the genetic basis of tame and aggressive behaviors" - I think this is overstating. The fox genome is an important tool for working with the genetics of tame foxes, and they are an important model for understanding the genetics of tame behavior. But this isn't the beginning of understanding the genetic basis of tame behavior - either we started that a long time ago, or we haven't really started yet, depending on how you look at it. As with other stories, this story also calls out the finding that there were some changes in aggressive foxes in a region similar to the one associated with Williams syndrome (hyperfriendliness, among other traits) in humans. Which is cool - but don't forget they also found changes in regions associated with autism and schizophrenia, which is also cool! (And which gives more perspective to the fact that a lot of changes were found in a lot of regions, and we don't know what any of them mean yet.) This story has a nice description of the behavioral trait associated with the SorCS1 gene, the one gene that the paper focused on that has changes associated with behavioral differences in tame foxes.
  • The first detailed map of red foxes’ DNA may reveal domestication secrets (ScienceNews): wow, I really like this one! Read this one! It does a great job summarizing the paper, it pulls out interesting stuff, and it doesn't ever go overboard in its interpretations.
  • Friendly Foxes’ Genes Offer Hints to How Dogs Became Domesticated (New York Times): quite short, so other articles are better bets for you to learn more about the study. However, I want to give a shout-out to this one for 1) not saying anything misleading and 2) explaining that tame foxes aren't great pets - something that can be really valuable to include in stories like this one.